A place called ‘hope’: the tiny island on the frontline of US-China tensions

More than 100 Filipinos live 15 miles from one of Beijings most ambitious island bases in the South China Sea

On the horizon, the azure sea water stops and the white, concrete structures of the Chinese military base rise up.

Sometimes we get nervous because we are only civilians. If they invade the island, they can harm us. They can do whatever they want, tells Romeo Malaguit, a fisherman and father of two, who lives on the nearby Philippine-claimed island Thitu.

Locally known as Pag-asa, entailing hope in Filipino, Thitu is a tree-studded settlement no more than 1.5 km long and 800 metres wide. A dilapidated runway takes up almost half the area.

It sits within sight of Subi reef, part of one of Beijings most rapidly developing military projects a series of controversial giant bases across the South China Sea.

With Donald Trumps top consultant warning of an imminent warover these contested water and China angry over US training exercises in the region, this tiny island could be one of the flashpoints for a potentially global and devastating conflict.

Few, if any, stretches of ocean are more heavily militarised by so many different governments.Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines claim parts of the South China Sea, with US backing. Beijing asserts ownership of the majority of members of the region through which about$ 5tn in ship-borne trade passes annually.

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Chinese structures and houses on the man-made Subi reef in the Spratly group of islands, as seen from the Thitu Island. Photo: Bullit Marquez/ AP

On 19 May, Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte told China had threatened to go to war if he pushed the South China Sea issue. Well, if you force this, well be forced to tell you the truth. We will go to war. We will oppose you, Duterte quoted Chinese chairman Xi Jinping as telling at a meeting, without giving further details.

Within the past year, Subi reef has installed surface-to-air missile sites, reinforced fighter jet hangers and a 3km runway capable of handling some of the largest bombers in Chinas airforce.

Thitus residents know they must live by Chinas regulations to remain here, where the armed forces of a host of countries are in a dangerous dance with Beijing.

We are not being harassed, told Roberto Del Mundo, the mayor. The Chinese fish here near us. We can also fish, but only around our area. Our barges cant go near[ Subi reef ]. Military airplanes are also shooed away if they get near.

There was a time when Filipino civilians lived here almost oblivious to the maritime dispute that sparks on-again-off-again tensions in the region.

The settlers on Pag-asa principally belong to two groups former soldiers like Del Mundo who were once deployed here and came back to build a home, and residents of nearby mainland Palawan who accepted a undertaking on the island.

Residents receive food packages. Theres local schools build for the children. And there is work on the municipal hallway if they want luxuries such as cable TV.

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A military handout photo of Thitu island in 2015. Locally known as Pag-asa, entailing hope in Filipino, Thitu is a tiny tree-studded settlement. A dilapidated runway takes up almost half the area. Photo: PAO, AFP, GHQ

Thitu, one of the biggest naturally occurring islands in the disputed South China Sea, is now dwarfed by Subi reef, 6km long. Residents say it glistens bright at night.

Eugenio Bito-onon, a former mayor who now lives off the island, spoke of a period when anglers could still going to see Subi. Chinese policemen, when they were in a good mood, occasionally greeted Filipino anglers inside the reef that previously had just a fort, helipad and lighthouse.

Our anglers would wave at the Chinese policeman and if he waved back, it means they could fish in the reef … They just started shooing us away from Subi reef in recent years, Bito-onon said.

Events have changed dramatically in the past five years. China signalled renewed aggressiveness in the South China Sea in 2012 when it took practical occupation of Philippine-owned Scarborough shoal in its bid to control the disputed seas.

It was an incident that prompted Manilas legal territory lawsuit against Beijing in The Hague. Chinas island house followed.

In July 2016, the court junked Chinas sweeping claims, but Beijing said it does not recognise the ruling and a newly installed Duterte, closer to China than his predecessor, has not attained much of the court verdict.

In April, he announced a plan to personally create the Philippine flag on Thitu and fortify it with barracks in festivity of Independence Day on 12 June, in the area the country calls West Philippine Sea.

But a week subsequently he cancelled. Because of our friendship with China and because we value your friendship I will not go there to create the Philippine flag, Duterte said at the time.

He instead sent his defence secretary, Delfin Lorenzana, to check on the situation in the island. His C130 plane received radio challenges from China four times.

However, it is not only China whose ships sometimes chase civilian boats. Thitu resident Aisa Balidan said she got a scare when a Vietnamese boat tailed their boat a few months ago as she returned to the island from mainland Palawan.

The residents consider these incidents isolated. They can always catch the next ship back to the mainland if they no longer want to live on the island. But why leave when chores are scarce on the two sides of the strait and residents here get subsidies from government?

Still, the hazard sometimes traverses their minds, especially when they hear in the media about tensions nearby. And all the time, the scene is set for a larger conflict.

Trumps chief strategist at the White House, Steve Bannon, told months before he entered office that there was no doubt the US and China will oppose a war within a decade over islands in the South China Sea.

Were going to war in the South China Sea in five to 10 years, he told in March 2016. Theres no doubt about that. Theyre taking their sandbars and building basically stationary aircraft carriers and putting weapons on those. They come here to the United States in front of our face and you understand how important face is and say its an ancient territorial ocean.

More lately, secretary of state Rex Tillerson said the US would deny China access to the seven artificial islands. Experts advised any siege would lead to war.

Residents of Thitu do not understand much about how Philippine chairwomen have constantly changed their strategies on dealing with China. But, living on the frontline of the dispute, they can measure the success or failure based on what they find.

They find China turn reefs into cities while their runway in Thitu get dilapidated over the years. The island doesnt even have a pier or a harbour.

We were the first to develop our island and build a runway. Now we are left behind, told Bito-onon. We are retreating while they are advancing. Our facilities are disintegrating out of neglect while our neighbours improve their own.

Carmela Fonbuena is a senior reporter at Rappler.com

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